Five Surprising Moments in Colorado Camping History

One of City Park's campsites, complete with elk.
One of City Park's campsites, complete with elk. Denver Public Library / Free Campground in City Park
Have you ever wondered when and how sleeping outside for fun became a thing in the United States?

That's the subject of Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life From the Civil War to the Occupy Movement, the fascinating new book by University of Colorado history professor Phoebe S.K. Young, who spent years looking into that question. Along the way, she found a complex and sometimes traumatic “hidden history” of recreational camping in the country.

That history, detailed by Young in Camping Grounds, essentially begins with Civil War veteran reunions but is also tied to the brutal treatment of Indigenous people, segregation, class issues, women’s rights, homelessness, and political protest from the Depression-era “Bonus Army” campers to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Young started teaching at CU in 2009. Living in Boulder, she hasn’t camped much herself in recent years because, in her words, she can “easily access the outdoors,” and camping “is a distant third to hiking and skiing.” However, Young — who holds a Ph.D. from the University of California San Diego and grew up taking frequent camping trips all over the western United States in her father’s VW Beetle — has a longtime love of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is mentioned numerous times in Camping Grounds. She uncovered plenty of Colorado history while working on the book.

Recently, Young, who will speak about Camping Grounds at the Boulder Bookstore on Thursday, September 30, talked with Westword about how Colorado intersects with camping history. Here are five surprising ways:
In the early 1900s, City Park was a popular camping destination. - DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY / FREE CAMPGROUND IN CITY PARK
In the early 1900s, City Park was a popular camping destination.
Denver Public Library / Free Campground in City Park
As Car Culture Boomed, People Flocked to Denver to Camp at City Park
Whereas Denver residents now typically leave the city for a weekend in isolation somewhere beautiful, a massive “auto camp” in Overland Park was once incredibly popular. Beginning in 1914, countless campers from around the country started streaming into a giant lot known as City Park. By 1921, as automobile sales started soaring, the urban-camping park would host tens of thousands of cars per season. As the “road trip” became synonymous with summer in America, “auto camps” like City Park sprang up across the country. Now the site of the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the park forbids camping.

Back then, though, “it was initially free,” Young notes, “because they were bringing their tourist dollars to the city. It was pretty well known nationally, and it was one of the largest. Most of the people would’ve either slept in tents or had contraptions attached to their cars. It is surprising that there was this whole network of camps in urban spaces that were explicitly designed to attract tourists, and they lasted, really, through the ’40s and ’50s, and then they were converted to pay camps and kind of slowly went away.”
click to enlarge Buena Vista, a popular destination for nearby camping and hiking trails, has longstanding roots in Colorado camping history. - KENZIE BRUCE
Buena Vista, a popular destination for nearby camping and hiking trails, has longstanding roots in Colorado camping history.
Kenzie Bruce
Women Were Camping for Fun by the End of the Nineteenth Century
One of the first public descriptions of women recreationally camping in the United States is from an 1893 article in Outing by a woman who camped near Buena Vista with her family and tried to “establish a temporary respectable home,” according to Young. In “A Family Camp in the Rockies,” Charlotte Conover wrote about what Young calls “her initial, disorienting experiences and her efforts to remedy them by producing comfort and familiarity in wilderness.”

“She was saying, ‘What am I gonna do? I’m three miles from an egg and six miles from a safety pin,’” Young says. “She’s talking about the sort of labor of camping, re-creating your parlor.” Conover was from the Midwest, but “came to Colorado and camped just outside of Buena Vista, in that valley there, and that’s where she was having these experiences, arguing for how you can feel the joys of keeping house in the outdoors," Young explains.

At one point in her article, Conover recalls being “aghast” at a family member who hinted at his intention to “boil the ham and the towels in the same kettle" and laying down the gauntlet: “This was too much. I made a valiant stand for my prerogatives.”

A Denver Man Developed One of the First Modern Recreational Campgrounds
Denver's Arthur Carhart beat Californian E. P. Meinecke by almost a decade in the development of the modern campground, but has been all but ignored by many historians.

“Arthur Carhart is a fascinating figure,” Young says. “He’s this guy who kind of pitches himself to the Forest Service as a sort of ‘recreation engineer.’ He just kind of makes up that title. He gets a job in 1919 or 1920 in the Denver regional office to design some strategies for hosting visitors, and the Forest Service had not really been in that business. The Forest Service had been about agriculture, preserving resources. Carhart basically designs a prototype for what Meinecke would do later — not precisely, but it’s the earliest that we’d see this kind of integrated campground facility, just west of Pueblo, in the San Isabel National Forest, called Squirrel Creek.

“It was a whole complex with a campground, picnic area, trail and pavilion sort of built as a prototype, and it’s also really interesting because he was explicitly thinking about and arguing that working-class folks like the workers in Pueblo in the steel industry needed access to outdoors, so it needed to be decently close proximity and needed to be open to all," Young continues. "He was trying to push back against some of the elitist pretensions we see earlier.

"So he builds this thing, but then the Forest Service and the Park Service get into this — excuse my colloquialism — this sort of pissing match over which agency is allowed to be the tourist agency. So Congress cuts the funding from the Forest Service for recreation and Carhart is P.O.’d and he quits, so that prototype never gets built upon," she explains. "Carhart goes on to be a big advocate for recreation and the outdoors in Colorado. He becomes a big figure in ’40s, ’50s, ’60s Colorado outdoor-recreation stuff, but this is his deep history, even before Meinecke, and he’s very prescient in saying, ‘This demand — wait for it, it’s coming.’ And they don’t heed his call.”

The Father of the Modern Campground Explored Colorado Sites
In the 1930’s Meinecke, known widely as the father of the modern campground layout, did research in Colorado, but not with Arthur Carhart, whose work was unfortunately forgotten quickly.

“After Meinecke developed his campground plan out of working in California,” Young relates, ”he does these tours that the National Park Service sends him on to evaluate different campgrounds in different places, and he goes to Mesa Verde and Rocky Mountain National Park.”
click to enlarge The 10th Mountain Division as seen in the documentary Climb to Glory. - WARREN MILLER ENTERTAINMENT
The 10th Mountain Division as seen in the documentary Climb to Glory.
Warren Miller Entertainment
Skiing Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division Continue to Influence the Outdoors Industry
The legendary Colorado-based 10th Mountain Division, an elite group of skiing and climbing soldiers who were based at Camp Hale, still impact the outdoor-recreation industry today.

“One of the things that’s really interesting is how much of outdoor recreation you can trace back to the 10th Mountain Division,” Young says, “whether it’s just skiing or…a bunch of them went on to found Outward Bound USA, which is also a Colorado-based organization, and then NOLS, which moved to Wyoming, but a bunch of its early leadership and staff were all 10th Mountain Division veterans.

“All of that training in the high alpine spawned this massive development of skiing, not just in Colorado, but also camping and just outdoor knowledge, and those people that decide they want to go into outdoor recreation as a career," Young continues. "Before WW II, you just don’t really see that, the idea of being a kind of [recreation] guide or an outdoor-camp organizer. After WW II, this idea that you can make a career out of something in outdoor recreation, you can trace it back to the 10th Mountain Division. They spawned their training into these multiple kinds of outdoor businesses, and that drew many more aficionados, and it had a snowballing effect.”

Phoebe S.K. Young discusses and signs her book at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 30, at the Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl Street, in Boulder; tickets are $5. For more information, call 303-447-2074.
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry